An Apple Expedition
Bringing home orchard fruit leads to an unexpected culinary delight.
By Kathy Gunst
Photograph by Ted Axelrod
Excerpted from Notes from a Maine Kitchen, Down East Books, Camden, Maine; 196 pages; $27.95
It was the kind of early October weekend that makes New England famous. Warm, intense sun, cool breezes, and a sky so blue and clear it doesn’t look quite real. The leaves were beginning to turn, and seeing one or two branches blazing with maroon and orange paints a pretty picture. One of my favorite orchards was open for picking, offering the last of the summer peaches and ten types of apples, so we packed into the car and drove north.
The fields surrounding the farm had all been hayed and those wonderful cylindrical rolls were left to dry on the parched earth. There had been no rain for more than two weeks.
The fruit farm is nearly empty in the early afternoon, and we march up to the counter like excited children. Just the idea of picking fresh fruit off a tree gives me a thrill. But when the young woman at the counter tells us the last of the peach trees have been picked clean just an hour before, my heart falls. My friend has come to visit from New York, and I promised her a peach-picking expedition. The woman tells us we can walk through the orchard and try our luck. I’m feeling optimistic. We manage to fill a very small bag with the last of the peaches, but it’s only enough for a pie or two. There are still some hearty ‘Harrow Beauties’ and several tenacious ‘Madisons’. But to breathe in just a little of that sweet nectar, and pick some of those fuzzy, ripe orange peaches makes the trip worth it.
As we’re leaving the peach orchard, we see all kinds of excitement under the apple trees. A family of four pulls a bright red wagon overflowing with apples. The kids munch away, sweet juice dripping down their chins. It’s hard to remember that when apples are fresh off the tree they have that kind of juice. The little girl’s white dress, adorned with hand-embroidered roses, has a zigzag line running down the middle from apple juice stains. She looks happy. Damn the dress.
We stroll through rows of apple trees, reading the names of the different varieties out loud like stanzas from a poem: “Mutsu, Empire, Jonagold, Ginger Gold, Northern Spy, Idared, Cortland, Macoun.” Then we discover the ‘Honeycrisp’, the featured apple of the week. They are huge, the size of small grapefruits, green with gorgeous red streaks. These apples have so much crunch that it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s a noisy experience biting into one. Serious snap. I’m not sure they are the ones I want to pick (my latest obsession is with the green, slightly spicy apples called ‘Ginger Golds’). But one bite of the ‘Honeycrisps’ and I’m hooked. They drip a sweet elixir that tastes like it’s been laced with freshly ground cinnamon.
Driving home, we talk about pies and tarts, apple cakes and strudels. But we decide we want to make a big batch of applesauce in an attempt to capture the apple’s honey-like juice and preserve it well into winter.
Meanwhile, my older daughter and a close friend of hers are home for the weekend. We enlist their help first thing the next morning. (First thing in the morning for a twenty-something home for the weekend is around noon.) Well rested, they peel the fruit with a vengeance, and before I know it, there are twenty pounds of naked apples on the table. They bite into them and scream: “How can an apple be this sweet and juicy?” I think about the little girl with the white-stained dress. I think about how my daughter was that little girl just a mega-second ago. I think about how time plays strange tricks on us all.
My daughter’s friend has German relatives and her German vocabulary includes the word apfelmus, meaning applesauce. As she peels, she chants: “Let’s make apfelmus.” Soon we are all laughing and saying the word apfelmus as much as possible.
But when I suggest to my daughter and our friends that we roast the applesauce instead of doing the traditional long simmer, they look at me the way my dog does when I say something really confusing.
I explain that I’d done some experimenting the previous fall and that roasting apples is a terrific, undiscovered technique. “All we do is peel the apples, toss them with some spices and a touch of sugar, and they naturally caramelize and cook down on their own. Then you simply mash them with a potato masher when they come out of the oven all hot and gooey and . . . instant applesauce.” At this point their expression changes: it now says, “You must be a genius or something!”
We pull out my biggest roasting pan, toss the apples with ground cinnamon, ginger, a touch of cardamom, allspice, maple syrup, and sugar. We put the apples into the hot oven and walk away. We go outside and walk through the woods. When we get back, the kitchen smells like a cliché of fall — crisp and full of apples pie and spices. You can practically imagine a thick sweater and a roaring fire. I take the pan out of the oven and mash the apples lightly and then we taste.
My daughter starts chanting, “This is the best apfelmus I’ve ever tasted,” and her friend repeats over and over “Mmmm, apfelmus.” We put some of the apfelmus into jars and some of it into bags for the freezer and go back outside to watch the leaves do their color dance.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Peel and core the apples and cut them into 1-inch slices. Place them in a large roasting pan and mix with maple syrup (about ¼ cup for every three pounds of apples). Sprinkle on a heavy dash of any or all of the following spices: cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, allspice, and ground ginger. Mix well, sprinkle on about cup sugar for every three pounds (depending on how sweet you like your applesauce, you can add more or less, or none at all).
Place the roasting pan on the middle shelf in the preheated oven and cover with foil. Roast for 30 minutes. Stir gently after 30 minutes. Uncover and add ½ to 1 cup apple cider (for every three pounds of apples), and roast another 30 to 45 minutes or until the apples are very tender and just starting to fall apart and burst.
Remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes before using a potato masher to gently mash the apples to the consistency you like your applesauce: thick and chunky or smooth. Taste for seasoning, and add more sugar or spice if needed. Place in a bowl or covered jar and refrigerate for up to 5 to 7 days, or place in freezer bags, seal tightly, and freeze for up to 6 months.
For the batter:
½ cup flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 pinch salt
½ cup (2%) milk
1 tablespoon safflower or canola oil
teaspoon ground cinnamon
teaspoon ground nutmeg
For the apples:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 medium-large apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 12 thin slices
¼ cup maple syrup
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
warm maple syrup, for serving
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees.
In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, and salt. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and the milk. Add the egg mixture to the flour and stir in the oil, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
Heat the butter over moderate heat in a 10-inch ovenproof skillet. Add the apples and cook for 3 minutes. Add the raisins, maple syrup, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the apples have softened and are coated in the syrup and spices.
Remove the apples from the heat and press them down into a single layer. Pour the batter on top and place on the middle shelf of the oven. Bake for 10 to 11 minutes, or until the pancake is puffed on the sides and looks cooked in the center. Remove and serve immediately with warm maple syrup on the side.
For the apples:
1 teaspoon salted butter
1 teaspoon olive or safflower oil
1 tart apple, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
1½ tablespoons maple syrup
For the sandwich:
two (4-inch) pieces of baguette or crusty bread, cut in half lengthwise, or 4 slices of your favorite bread
2½ ounces very thinly sliced Gruyère cheese
In a medium skillet, heat the butter and oil over low heat. When sizzling, add the apple slices and cook, stirring gently once or twice, for 3 minutes. Drizzle on the maple syrup and raise the heat to medium-high. Cook for another 2 minutes, or until the apples are caramelized and just tender, but not mushy. Remove from the heat.
Preheat the broiler.
Place the bread on a small broiler pan. Divide the apples and the syrup in the bottom of the skillet between the four pieces of bread. Place the cheese on top of the apples and place the bread under the broiler. Broil for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbling and melted.
It’s spitting a kind of wet, slushy mush. But when friends down the street have their annual Apple Cider Pressing Party, people show up no matter what the weather. There’s something about the fall and apples and pressing cider that makes New Englanders happy. Maybe it’s because we know, deep inside, that this is the last harvest, the final bit of local sweetness before the frost takes over and freezes the earth. Or maybe it’s just that apples and apple cider are so incredibly delicious.
Our friends use a hand-crank wooden press, the kind that takes a good bit of muscle and man- and woman-power to operate. Everyone brings their own apples — from their trees or a neighbor’s — along with some sweet local pears, and we begin pressing. Every batch of cider combines several varieties of apples, each adding its own bit of sweetness and spice. The complex flavors — cinnamon, sugar, maple, and a hint of nutmeg — that are released from the press strike me as perfectly balanced, like a well-made wine. The texture, slightly thick and syrupy, is equally pleasing with its smooth, velvety feel. A glass of freshly pressed cider is like drinking a whole season of autumn one sip at a time.
As we stand around that cold, wet barn, taking turns cranking the press and throwing apples into the chute, the talk inevitably turns to cooking.
“I like throwing cider into the pan when I’m sautéing pork chops,” one woman told me. “I add it to my applesauce every year,” announces another. “We like mixing it with dark rum and fresh lime juice,” one guy chimes in. “I mix it into my pancake and waffle batter,” said the mother of two little girls clinging to her legs. “Sunday morning apple pancakes. Use it instead of milk in your pancake recipe.”
And then I innocently mention that I like to boil down a jug of cider to make jelly. The room goes kind of quiet. “Jelly?” someone asks “Sure,” I answer and explain the recipe. Boil a quart of cider for three long hours and eventually you are left with a thick, amber-colored jelly. Real simple. “Wow!” a few people mumble, “Way cool!” Everyone goes back to sipping cider, exchanging recipes, and trying to keep warm. I take my jug of cider (a party favor for each guest) home and start boiling.
One gallon unpasteurized apple cider, with no additives.
Place the cider in a large, heavy pot and bring to a gentle boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and let simmer for about 2 hours. After about 2 hours, the cider will begin to thicken
and coat the back of a spoon. This is the time to pay attention. Do not answer the phone — stay focused on the jelly. Keep cooking over a gentle simmer, on very low heat, for another 45
minutes or until the jam begins to thicken and the syrupy mixture comes to about 190 degrees on a candy thermometer. My jelly took almost three hours to thicken. Let cool and place in a glass jelly jar. Refrigerate. The jelly will keep for several weeks.
For a spicy jelly: place a chile pepper cut in half down the middle into a piece of cheesecloth and tie it up. Place the chile into the cider for the first hour of cooking, and then remove.
Make a mulled cider jelly: place a cinnamon stick, allspice berries, and three cloves in a piece of cheesecloth and tie it up tightly. Place in the jelly during the first hour of cooking, and
For an herbal apple cider jelly: place several leaves of fresh sage, rosemary, and oregano (or any fresh herb) in a piece of cheesecloth and tie up tightly. Place in the cider for the first 1½ hours of cooking time, and then remove.